What the hell should I wear: looking well put together on a
July 26, 2011 3:41 PM   Subscribe

Let's say I have $500-$700 to spend on a work week's worth of clothing. And let's say I want to look good — sharp, competent, grown up and well put together, not just vaguely "professional" or dress-code-compliant in a Wal-Mart-khakhis-and-a-polyester-shirt sort of way. (In fact, I have no dress code at all, and I'm totally willing to sacrifice ostensible "dressiness" in the interest of looking sharp and grown up and etcetera.) What should I buy?

Relevant factors:
  • I have the shopping skills of an eight-year-old. If you just tell me e.g. "Go to Banana Republic," I will come home all excited with seventeen pairs of suspenders and a pajama shirt. Please be specific.
  • Repetitive is great, as long as I'm repeating an outfit that works. I secretly fantasize about calling up a clothing shop and being asked "Your regular order, sir?"
  • Tall, skinny, pale skin, red hair, trimmed beard. Did I mention skinny? Department store sport shirts tend to billow out unpleasantly. Fitted shirts, especially "athletic cut" or whatever their euphemism for "skinny" is, tend to be okay.
  • General frugal-living tips ("Sometimes clothing goes on sale!" "You should buy things that match other things that you also buy!") are okay but not really what I'm looking for. OTOH, "Go to this store and buy this many of this shirt when they have this annual sale" is fine.
posted by nebulawindphone to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (28 answers total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Hmm. That title is missing a word. Let's say "budget," maybe? I have no idea if this even counts as "on a budget," that's how bad I am at shopping. Help!
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:44 PM on July 26, 2011

Banana Republic often has staff who are receptive, even eager, to put outfits together for you based on a few things you tell them. (Nordstrom definitely has such staff, but I have no experience with the men's department. The women's depts all do this.) It works like this: You walk in, say you need help, you know a few things you like and don't like (e.g., "I really hate shiny material"), you have a budget, and you want someone to stock your dressing room with their ideas of outfits and things that go together. Trust me: You won't even have to say all of this.

They'll ask you about colors, and fit and cut, and materials, and decorations. They'll probably tell you look around and gather stuff on your own while they put a bunch of outfits in your room. They'll probably even hang them in their pairings so you can have an instant visualization of what things would go together. Protip: While you're trying stuff on, pay close attention to items of the same color that you can dedupe. e.g., She gave you a black casual button down, a black dressier button down, and a blue button down. You may not need two shirts in the same color for different purposes.

They won't bat an eye at this, and they'll probably even enjoy it. Your benefit is you get to see how outfits go together without cracking open any magazines, and it's very time-effective.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 3:54 PM on July 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

Make an appointment with a J. Crew Personal Shopper. Paste a version of your above-the-fold question into the notes field.
posted by grouse at 3:54 PM on July 26, 2011 [4 favorites]

If you want to stay within/ under budget and need slim fit clothing I strongly recommend finding your local H&M or Zara's. They're European, so they tend to run more slim.

For a "sharp" work week's of clothing focus on:

1) 5 button up shirts in variety of colors/ patterns (I mean stripes and checks, not paisley or anything nuts)
2) 5 undershirts (cheap white and/or black t shirts depending on what button ups you choose)
3) 2 or 3 pairs of slacks - I would tend towards a charcoal gray/ black option rather than khaki/ chino's, but whatever floats your boat. As a guy, you can get away with wearing the same pants two days in a row/ several times in one week.
4) Nice shoes - boat shoes are fine, just something comfortable and unremarkable. This will likely not be at aforementioned stores and may require separate outing. Feel free to spend c. $100 of said budget here - it will be money well spent, and men's shoes can last forever if you get good quality.

This is based on a recent shopping trip I initiated for my SO who is shopping incompetent, tall, slim, and starting a new professional job.
posted by CharlieSue at 3:58 PM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Age is an important factor you don't mention.
Find a fashion mentor. Who do you think represents the image you want to portray?
Find a shop that caters to your physique.
Get a well fitted blazer and wear it. A man who looks comfortable in a suit is a turn on.
Pay attention to the collar when you’re buying dress shirts and pick ones that have spread collars rather than button down as they will make the upper portion of your chest seem wider.
flat-front pants with classic cut. Avoid tapered trousers or skinny jeans, opt for straight-leg or slightly boot-cut shaped ones.
posted by JXBeach at 4:00 PM on July 26, 2011

Guy's stuff is a simple formula: dark jeans + nice shoes + button-down shirt, repeat every day.

Pants: Since you don't have to do dressy, get a couple pairs of dark-wash jeans as staples. No (or very minimal) fading or whiskering - they should pretty much be all one color. The BR ones I linked are a good start, and you might look for similar pairs in trendy brands as well.

Shoes: Good shoes are KEY. Streamlined, no chunky soles, neutral color. I just did a quick search on Zappos and these from Kenneth Cole and these from Frye are examples.

Shirts: Agreed on Ben Sherman, and you can't go wrong with Banana Republic.
posted by ella wren at 4:02 PM on July 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'd probably go to a tailor; $700 would be stretching it a bit if you're including shoes but here's what you could buy:

$300 5 dress shirts
$200 2 pairs of dress pants (I usually get suits, so I'm guessing a bit on the pants price)

Leaving $200 for a nice belt, shoes, etc. Really you should just have one pair of brown shoes and one pair of black shoes, with belts that match. That shouldn't be too hard.

Nothing will fit you better than this solution. My tailor keeps a visual file of all the clothing I've bought before, so when I say something like "I really liked that white shirt you made me last time" he says "We also have it in blue". A tailor is a professional who's job it is to make you look good.If you're worried about being paralyzed by too many options, you can just ask your tailor to pick out things that look good together so you can mix and match. Note that you can get "dress shirts" in casual or very casual fabrics. I wear a suit most days but I still prefer to get "casual" button downs from my tailor
posted by 2bucksplus at 4:02 PM on July 26, 2011

$700 will get you six shirts, three ties, and two pairs of very nice dress pants at Nordstrom. I know because I JUST DID THIS with my version of you. The shirts we toss in the wash, you don't need to iron them and they are worth every penny--think of the $$ saved on dry-cleaning! You could also skip the ties and get six ties at Macy's instead of the three at Nordstrom. You can handle ties, right?

Nordstrom is super nice because you can walk in and say, as you said to us, "I have $700 to spend. Fit me out with a week's worth of sharp clothes.", and they will, and they will not be snooty or demoralizing about it. Promise. The other thing is that the pants come unfinished at the bottom and tailoring the hems is included in the cost of the pants, I believe.
posted by stellaluna at 4:04 PM on July 26, 2011 [5 favorites]

I think you're a good candidate for a J. Crew shopping trip. They make a chino pant that can be customized for waist/length/cuff to 1/2". I can't find it on the web site, but I have seen it in the catalog. I believe they run about $69.50. You will need about 4-5 of these in different colors.

J. Crew is also a good source for button-down shirts. Pick colors you like or think you can pull off, patterns that aren't too annoying to you personally, and invest in a good 5-6 of those. They aren't cheap, but they will last you for a good while.

If you're not averse to wearing some sort of nice polo shirt, you might check out American Apparel. Their shirts tend to run small, so you would probably be in good shape there, too.

Lastly, don't forget to get a decent belt and good looking shoes. If you don't have those two things, you're back at square one. If you have a Nordstrom's in your town, walk in and let the salesperson walk you around. Ours has seriously good service, and my sales guy went above and beyond to help me pick out duds for my wedding.

On preview: don't forget that you can always get things altered, too. People who look exceptionally sharp almost always get their off-the-rack clothing altered by a good alteration shop. It really makes a world of difference.
posted by Gilbert at 4:06 PM on July 26, 2011

I agree with CharlieSue on the list... and also agree that Zara would be a good shop to find what you're looking for as it has some pretty sharp men's clothing. Century 21 would be a good place as well. You can find designer clothes and shoes for cheap and you will look like you spent five times what you actually did!
posted by seriousmoonlight at 4:07 PM on July 26, 2011

Do you know how pants, shirts, etc that fit your own body are supposed to look and feel? Do you know where they should fall on your shoes?

Does your budget include taking your haul to a tailor for fixing?

If yes to either (preferably both) of the above, visit Ross, Marshalls, TJMaxx, Syms and if you have loads of patience, thrift stores. Whatever you buy retail, leave the tags on until after you've visited the tailor. If it can't be made to fit you properly, an honest tailor will have you take it back to the store. Do not expect to find everything in one visit to one store. Plan to spend at least an hour at each place you go. Try things on before you buy. If the pants fall down, that can't be fixed.

If no, follow the above advice about visiting with JCrew or Nordstrom personal shoppers. More expensive, but will get you things that fit. If you're concerned about looking stupid, bring some pictures (chop out of magazines, print from your computer. Don't use the iPhone, the screen is not big enough to really see, and it's hard to get an idea of a theme from scrolling through pictures) of what you do and don't like for your workplace and your social life. Make notes on each pic of what you like, even if it's just, "These shoes" or "that shirt is dumb." My experience with these personal shoppers is that they have very strong preferences themselves, and without strict limits and inputs from me, they go pretty wild with the things they think would look fabulous on me. If you're not open to wearing paisley, say it up front!

What you want is:

shirts: maybe several button downs in cotton. Not polyester. White is good. Subtle subtle subtle patterns are ok. Color is great. You might feel better about buying polo shirts, or some other style. Or a mix.
blazer: you might not have any interest in owning one, but I promise you, they are not all the same. If you like the idea, bring pictures of some you like.
pants: wool and wool blends preferred, 1 pair black, 1 pairs grey, 1 olive and/or tan maybe one pair of cotton khaki pants. You may or may not decide to keep the jeans you already own.
socks: crappy socks look like crappy socks
shoes: where is paulsc when we need him? He used to sell and make shoes, ask him. If he doesn't show up, here's answer he gave to a question I had about men's shoes.
undershirts: you should probably be wearing them. a six pack will be good. 3 is fine if you like doing laundry. I like the look of short sleeved ones, some guys like the tank top types. Don't wear ancient band tour shirts under your business clothes. Just don't
Belt: You need a brown one and a black one. I'm told that belts "fit" when they're buckled in about the center hole. A shoe repair place can add holes to belts, if you need that.

I see in your profile that your status seems to equate to "taken." Has your better half made any suggestions in this domain?

The one super slim guy I know has luck at Benetton. Keep your eye on the sale stuff though.

bear in mind, I'm a woman, and there's a reason I own only 2 pairs of jeans, but 3 similar grey dresses from Calvin Klein that I got on clearance racks. I hate shopping, and when I find something I like, I stick with it.
posted by bilabial at 4:11 PM on July 26, 2011

Response by poster: Age is an important factor you don't mention.


Find a fashion mentor. Who do you think represents the image you want to portray?

Oh jeez. If I were the sort of person who knew how to answer this question, I'm guessing I wouldn't be so inept about shopping.

So, okay, I've noticed I care a lot about clothing fitting well and being made from decent fabric. I don't mind looking plain. (I've wondered if the solution was just seven identical white oxford shirts and be done with it.) I'm actively disinterested in looking trendy. Macho or extra-masculine is also a negative; a little queer or nerdy is fine. I think between that and the original question, I've given you all of my conscious opinions about men's fashion.

Get a well fitted blazer and wear it. A man who looks comfortable in a suit is a turn on.

How and where would I find a good suit that fits into a $700 clothing budget? I'd assumed that would be out of the question, but I'd love to be proven wrong.
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:12 PM on July 26, 2011

I sent you a me-mail on this.
posted by jgirl at 4:16 PM on July 26, 2011

I can also recommend Nordstrom and Banana Republic as having both a good selection and for their service.
You may find a selection of nicer items at Nordstrom, but BR is still good for overall selection, especially for what you seem to be looking for.
Something to consider about Nordstrom: right now their Anniversary sale is going on which means you can save some $$$ on new fashions.

Good basics to look for:
Polo shirts - simple and fitted
Khaki-like pants in different colors/shades - try on some different cuts to find the ones that fit best
Sweaters - v-neck, crew, half zip are all good
posted by nickthetourist at 4:18 PM on July 26, 2011

How and where would I find a good suit that fits into a $700 clothing budget?

You might be able to do it if you bought all your clothes at Nordstrom Rack. However, I don't think Nordstrom Rack is a good experience for people who don't know what they're doing. Stuff at Nordstrom Rack is what hasn't sold at Nordstrom. It's usually the high quality of stuff you would buy at Nordstrom, and you will often find some great clothes in there, but a large proportion of the stuff, in my opinion, didn't sell because it was fugly.
posted by grouse at 4:26 PM on July 26, 2011

Indochino.com! Or Modasuite.com!

Both are online tailors which deliver made-to-measure suits and shirts for super cheap. I've ordered an oxford shirt and a basic grey suit from Indochino for about $400 and loved both. They also offered a groupon a while back for $100 off.
posted by beepbeepboopboop at 4:37 PM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

How and where would I find a good suit that fits into a $700 clothing budget? I'd assumed that would be out of the question, but I'd love to be proven wrong.

You pretty much wouldn't. It would be a cheap suit, and odds are good people could tell.

Based on your more recent comment it seems like you need to build essentials. One thing I'd like to mention is that for basic shirts, Lands' End is a good option. Really. Between their mainline and Canvas, you can cover a lot of the essential button-downs that should be the part of a wardrobe. No, however, the quality will not be the same as many items at Nordstrom. But if you look at your budget and you're looking to cut a tiny corner somewhere, you can probably get "quite good" quality shirts from LE versus "really good" shirts from elsewhere.

Obligatory mention of Put This On, too. This post on essentials is killer and super helpful, and this short one on basics, and this one on business casual (although their opinions on polo shirts have changed over the years).
posted by hijinx at 4:38 PM on July 26, 2011 [3 favorites]

I think you should take a look at this website: http://putthison.com/post/712103418/the-essential-mans-wardrobe-perhaps-the-most. It's a little high-fashion, but it's also not trendy.

I would also advise you not to buy it all on one trip because you're also going to buy some things that you don't realize that you don't like. Spend more money on less pieces because you'll keep them longer. Clothes from many mall stores wear out quickly during weekly use.
posted by Michael Pemulis at 4:40 PM on July 26, 2011

And I clearly don't know what high fashion means. The post on essentials is from Put This On is excellent advice.
posted by Michael Pemulis at 4:52 PM on July 26, 2011

Have we talked about color yet? I think redheads look great in shades of blue and blue-green (not to preclude other choices).

Somebody mentioned Land's End. They have these "tailored fit" no-iron shirts on sale pretty cheap. Lots of other "tailored fit" options too, although I don't know if it's slim-cut enough for your build. This one is even cheaper and might be good if they have one of the blues in your size.
posted by Orinda at 4:58 PM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Can I make a little bit of a orthogonal suggestion to the advice offered above (or at least something to think about)?

You may need to buy $700 of clothes now; but if you actually want to learn how to dress; I'm gonna assure you that this is going to be $700 of money spent learning, and $700 that will only buy you a competent "vaguely "professional" and / or dress-code-compliant."

You need to learn what looks good on you, and what fits you, and to a certain degree you will have to learn how to fit yourself into the clothes you buy (have you ever worn tight or "fitted pants" before? What would wearing them say about your self-image?). And that will probably take time, and practice of buying clothes trying them out, deciding what works and what doesn't. You're not going to get this at a store in one-go... even with a fashion saavy friend, or a J.Crew Personal Shopper.

You will get it by thinking about what you're buying, knowing brands, and how different stores fit different types of bodies (your body!) and seeing how the people around you fit, or don't fit into the clothes they wear.

And don't fret. Lots of people have been doing this for decades to look chic. We all have to start somewhere.
posted by stratastar at 5:24 PM on July 26, 2011

pants: wool and wool blends preferred

No, I don't think so, not unless you go for the lightweight wool. He lives in Austin, where it gets *hot*.

OP, I think you can get pants like these and look sharp with your body type for daily work wear. You can find easy care, wrinkle-free versions.

Dress them up with shirts like these, wear polos to go casual.

I'd get pants in khaki, olive and brown or in grey and black (depending on whether you want brown or black dress shoes. You could even get grey and navy and wear oxblood shoes if you want).

Get a couple solid dress shirts and at least one patterned one that will go with two or more of your pants. (For instance, navy and grey). Polos should each match two or more pairs of pants (this with navy, khaki). Belt and socks to match your dress shoes.

Get at least one pair of dark jeans to wear on Fridays if your workplace tends to go more casual then. Pair them with one of your polos or a casual button-down.

I don't care how thin you are, stay away from skinny jeans if you are old enough to shave. Trust me on this.
posted by misha at 5:52 PM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Your local department store should offer personal shopper services. Call them and ask them for an appointment. In general, to look presentable and sharp, you want clothes that FIT.

Shirts: You don't want your shirt to blouse much, but you don't want the buttons to gape open when you lift your arms over your head. Get shirts with a straight collar, not a buttoned collar. French cuffs are hard to pull off--I would avoid those. Do not buy short-sleeved shirts. If it's hot, roll up your sleeves.

Pants: Pants should have a straight leg, no pleats or cuffs (really, these are dated at best and sloppy at worst if you don't press them). They should stay up without a belt, but a belt is a nice finishing touch. Get a brown belt and a black belt. I think a silver buckle looks fresher than gold, but get what you like.

I find a sport jacket tough for anyone under 40 to pull off, except over jeans or in church. If you're not doing a suit, don't do a jacket. A sweater vest over a button-down shirt can look quite natty (this is what my husband does in lieu of a jacket in winter because his office is not suit-mandatory). Likewise, a nice v-neck sweater over a collared shirt is also swell. Get a natural or mostly natural fabric, and dryclean it so it doesn't pill or fade.

J. Crew and Banana Republic will both take good care of you, but $700 actually won't get you very far there. You'd be lucky to get five outfits for that. However, I highly recommend going there and trying everything on and seeing what you like and what your size is, and then stalking their clearance sales online. This is one of the rare occasions when I would suggest signing up for promotional emails.

I wouldn't shoot for a distinctive "style" right out of the gate. Get your basics--good quality basics, and once you develop your eye, you'll get a better sense of what you'll want to spend your money on.

Also, I would subscribe thee to Esquire or another men's fashion magazine. The more fashion-literate you are, the better you'll be able to shop. Just understand that those are designer clothes, so don't use the prices as a guide for quality--just get familiar with the looks.
posted by thinkingwoman at 6:08 PM on July 26, 2011

I'm married to a tall skinny guy and I can tell you what I've found for him. I agree with what stratastar said about not necessarily buying it all at once. Buy one kind of shirt, wear it for a while and see if LOVE it. If I were you, I'd stay away from personal shoppers at JCrew, etc. They will sell you too much stuff.

Banana Republic sells a button down shirt called Slim Fit. Those have become favorites. They come in all kinds of stripes, solids, plaid. They don't pouf out when you tuck them in. I'd get a couple of those if you like the fit. I think they look grown-up, a bit preppy and sharp. I'd say if you want to look a bit stylish, pick one that has a bit of a pattern or is a little different. If you do decide you like them, I'd sign up for their online deals where they send coupons and then sign up for a BR credit card on the day you buy. You can always pay it off and you get 20 percent off when you sign up. I'd say that you can make the most of your money buy buying a bunch of nice shirts. I don't think people notice pants as much.

Banana Republic and American Apparel both sell slim fitting polos. If that's your style, they always look good.

Gap sells a straight fitting chino that is not too skinny, not too wide. If they fit, I'd get a couple of pairs. Ditto with the dark rinse jeans.

Benetton sells good sweaters for thin guys. Nice quality and will last you.
posted by hellochula at 7:45 PM on July 26, 2011

I think acceptable shirts are a dime a dozen, see Ben Sherman, Paul Smith, hell even Banana or H&M.

Personally, I judge a man by his pants! I <3 these red pants by Dockers of all brands.

Also, I REALLY want to buy my husband a pair of Betabrand Corarounds because I freakin' love the pocket detail but he is not skinny in the thighs so I'm guessing they wont work on him. Probably would on you though. Check out the rest of their stuff too.

And good shoes are important. I'd recommend Campers or some colorful Pumas or Adidas for super casual.
posted by lannanh at 8:42 PM on July 26, 2011

-Dress shirts:
* Know your measurements before you go out.
*If there's a Filene's Basement or Nordstrom Rack anywhere near you, go there first. Both stores carry Burma Bibas, which I've found to be a reliable choice for fitted shirts.
*Avoid any shirt that says "wrinkle free" or "non-iron" on the tag. Check the tag to make sure you're not getting a polyester or rayon blend.
*Since you're pale, avoid solid white shirts unless you're going to a wedding. Light blue is always a good choice; so is gray, especially if there's a bit of a pattern to it. When you're more confident, consider an off-white shirt (sold as "ecru," "bone," or "ivory") for dark jackets that demand a bit of contrast.
*Collars: for the time being, less like this, more like this.

*It's usually a strong move to match the dominant color of your tie with some colored element of your shirt or jacket.
*If your shirt and jacket are solid in color, choose a patterned tie (diagonal stripes, discreet dots, or paisley); if your shirt or jacket boast a strong pattern of its own, then go for a solid tie.

*As stated above, avoid pleats.
*I would suggestion that your order of acquisition run: navy, khaki, light to medium gray (in wool), black.
*Again, watch out for poly blends. If the pants are already showing wrinkles on the rack, pass them by.

-Belt: Should match the general color of your shoes.

-Socks: Ideally, should match the general color of your pants. In practice, you can get away with dark gray or navy socks 90% of the time.

*Nordstrom Rack is the best place for decent shoes on a budget, though you'll have to wade through an ocean of crap to find them. Try for a good brown oxford or blucher without too much ornament. Bostonian, Florsheim are decent bets at your budget, but let yourself be guided by fit, aesthetics, construction, and material rather than brands.

-Jacket/sport coat/blazer:
*Fit is everything here. Given your proportions, you may have to hire a tailor if you want a truly flattering jacket.
*Alternately, go without. It's Austin, for God's sakes; no will blame you.
posted by Iridic at 11:14 PM on July 26, 2011

A few people have mentioned in passing but I want to underline this - make sure that whatever you buy does not require any sort of special treatment (ironing, pressing, etc) unless you are willing and able to give it that treatment. I'm always super disappointed when I get a shirt home and realize after the first wash that the collar won't stay flat without ironing (particularly since I do not do ironing). Salespeople should be able to help with this - ask them what sort of treatment the clothes should require, though, not just 'is this machine washable?' If they're advising you on what's best, they're more likely to give an objective opinion than if they're coming up with ways that you could wear this shirt without having to dry-clean it.
posted by Lady Li at 12:24 AM on July 27, 2011

I work in midtown Manhattan, but I have worked in professional Austin, too. This is all my opinion, and IAAP (I am a prescriptivist).

I think buying 5 white shirts is a terrific idea. I really hate all these dark and bright colored shirts (especially black shirts--you either look like a bouncer or a fascist). You can also throw in some pale blue shirts, and some brighter blue shirts, called French blue. That can pretty much outfit your whole life at work. For a casual Friday, you could spring for a blue and white striped oxford. No short sleeves.

You only need one pair of black pants: they should be part of a suit which you wear to funerals and formal evening events only. The rest of your dress pants should pretty much be shades of navy or charcoal, either solid or with very very faint patterns. For a casual Friday, you can go for nice jeans, on the darker side (but too dark, you're not going to the club) or chinos (in normal chino shades of brown, tan, etc).

Since you say that you're going for queer or nerdy, you can get a couple of v-neck sweaters (start with solid colors) to wear over your shirts. I personally think that looks very nice. You can even go for a sweater vest, but I think you should start with a pattern, usually argyle.

For shoes, a toe that is more toward the pointy/tapered end of the spectrum looks snazzier--take a look at some of the Italian men on the Sartorialist to see what I mean (it's a blog; go there now). Find something you like and get a pair in black and a pair in dark brown. Get them shined constantly. Keep the laces in good repair--none of those frayed ends. Get two belts in leather that matches the shoes.

If you carry a bag, you will look more grown up if it's in leather. A nice brown leather briefcase, instead of a backpack or polyester-or-whatever-they're-made-of messenger bag. Unless you are a bike messenger. But you probably aren't.

The longer your winter coat is, the more grown up you'll look.

Socks should match the color of your pants.

Go wild with your ties. They are wearing them on the skinnier side now, but it swings back and forth.
posted by thebazilist at 1:41 PM on July 28, 2011

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